CBS' '48 Hours' More Rather and Lather Than Real News

C alling Dr. Dan. Calling Dr. Dan .

It moved and grooved, it diapered and hypered, it lathered and Rathered. It was happy and snappy, teary and bleary. It was breezy. It was swift. It was nimble. It was musical. It was exciting. It was conversational and improvisational. It was motion and emotion, action and traction.

It was a swell time, popcorn time, show time.

In short, Tuesday's debut of "48 Hours"--the new CBS News prime-time series devoting an hour each week to a single subject--was a microcosm of much of TV news itself, a chain of lickety-split impressions with no core.

Very entertaining, not very illuminating. It was like a Frederick Wiseman documentary filmed on speed.

Headed by anchorman Dan Rather, an army of CBS News personnel spent two days monitoring Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas--from intensive care to volunteer clowns--and came away with a stunted, choppy, high-tech version of the famed Wiseman's comprehensive documentary on New York's Metropolitan Hospital. CBS used almost everyone in this but its leader, Laurence A. Tisch. You half expected to see William Paley emptying bedpans.

The hour was threaded by the ongoing drama of a Thai man undergoing brain surgery, but otherwise the individually reported pieces were too abrupt to convey anything beyond feelings--the predictable joys and traumas you would expect to find at any hospital. These were mainly punctuation marks without sentences, Helper without hamburger. They made "60 Minutes" segments seem like marathon documentaries.

For example, you wanted to hear so much more about the stress on intensive care nurses.

"I don't wanna get involved," said one. "I don't wanna be sad when that patient dies." Another noted that "AIDS alone is enough to scare you out of (nursing)."

But just as Bernard Goldberg's piece became fascinating, it ended.

Time to move on.

Richard Roth's piece on the hospital's fiscal bottom line ran into the same brick wall. Soon after hearing that some still-groggy surgical patients are released without staying the night--appearing to raise all kinds of ethical questions--we heard another reporter on a different topic.

Time to move on.

Better a shortage of information than risk boring viewers who have the attention spans of 3-year-olds.

There was no shortage of Rather, however. Why was it that Roth was never on camera, and Susan Spencer and Robert Arnot were rarely on camera during their pieces, but Rather was always on camera during his two reporting stints?

He opened the hour with a man who was brought in with a severe asthma attack that almost took his life. After the patient was treated by hospital personnel and was recovering, into his room walked Dr. Dan, saying: "I can't tell you how pleased I am to see that big, broad, ear-to-ear smile you just gave them." Who cares how pleased he is?

Dr. Dan returned later in the show, wearing a yellow hospital gown for his stint in the neonatal intensive care unit, touching babies and remarking: "Oh, glad to see that smile on this baby. Yes!" What bedside manner. He even sounded like a doctor: "What's been the problem?"

If nothing else, "48 Hours" reaffirms the potency of pictures in expressing emotions.

It succeeded Tuesday in capturing the terrible anguish of a family that had just agreed to suspend life-support efforts for a dying loved one. But even here, "48 Hours" seemed to cross a line. Family members apparently gave permission for tape of them to be used. Yet CBS seemed to invade their private grief merely for the sake of driving up the program's emotional level, and it was unsettling to watch them suffer so deeply with a camera almost in their faces.

"48 Hours" is spun off from the 1986 CBS News special "48 Hours on Crack Street," which explored the New York drug scene and earned unusually high ratings for a documentary.

The first outing of "48 Hours" as a weekly series was less a job of tough reporting than a salute. Parkland Memorial couldn't buy better publicity. If it has any of the flaws common to most medical institutions, they weren't shown here, save during a fleeting moment when a doctor couldn't locate a patient a la Paddy Chayefsky's 1971 movie, "The Hospital."

This CBS News version of a large hospital arrived almost simultaneously with word that NBC's long-running hospital drama "St. Elsewhere" won't return next season--begging a comparison.

It's close. You'd have to rate "48 Hours" as more entertaining, but "St. Elsewhere" probes deeper.

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